CA: Metro's in-house police plan faces scrutiny from Sheriff Luna, transit safety group

Nov. 20, 2023
Sheriff Luna's concerns include the plan's high start-up costs, finding qualified officers, and decreasing law enforcement services on the L.A. Metro system.

Nov. 17—Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna has pushed back against a concept in which LA Metro would start its own in-house police department, citing his concerns over high start-up costs, finding qualified officers, and decreasing law enforcement services on the Metro system.

The issues raised by Luna were brought out on Monday, Nov. 13 at a meeting of Metro's Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC). The committee moved to study the proposal by establishing ad-hoc committees on the issue. Luna's critique is outlined in an eight-page letter sent to Metro dated Oct. 17, obtained by this newspaper on Thursday, Nov. 16.

Luna's analysis

The L.A. County sheriff picked apart a feasibility study presented to the board in June for creating an in-house police department that would replace the three law enforcement agencies now patrolling the transit system: Los Angeles Police Department, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and Long Beach Police Department.

Luna wrote that the study severely underestimated the costs of starting and maintaining an in-house police department. The study said the new department would consist of 290 field officers at a cost of $135.4 million, less than the $173 million cost of the current three law enforcement contracts.

But Luna wrote that the estimated total yearly cost for an in-house police department contained in the study did not account for $170.5 million in start-up costs, pensions and facilities — such as evidence lockers and holding cells. He put the cost at $227.5 million annually, saying the cost savings from an in-house police department are nonexistent.

Over five years, the cost would be $1.43 billion, compared to about $1 billion to continue the current program, or $433 million more, Luna wrote.

"It appears that budget, staffing, training, liability costs, pension costs and operational concerns were not completely addressed, and overall costs were underestimated in the study provided to the Board," Luna concluded.

He also wrote that the proposed department, as laid out in the study, would result in a reduction of 85 daily deployed law enforcement officers from current levels — a drop of 32%.

Metro responds

Metro CEO Stephanie Wiggins is preparing an implementation plan and is running the feasibility study through an independent consultant in preparation for a presentation to the Metro board in January. Metro is still analyzing costs and service levels for a proposed Transit Community Public Safety Department, Wiggins wrote in a response to Luna on Oct. 31.

"I will ensure that the concerns you raised in the recent letter are included in the consultant's review and any findings will be incorporated in the final implementation plan," Wiggins wrote.

The in-house department would use fewer officers because it would not deploy them in pairs, as some of the law enforcement agencies require, the Metro study said. Also, a Metro Police Department would reduce what the report calls "unnecessary duplication of management and administrative efforts," by budgeting for 83 people in administration, compared to 149 budgeted by the three contracted agencies.

At the Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) meeting, Metro staff pointed to Luna's concerns.

"The biggest thing that he had an issue with is the start-up cost and the number of officers we have need of," said Gina Osborn, Metro's chief safety officer, who summarized Luna's points from the letter. She said the consultant has conducted 35 interviews as part of its ongoing examination of the proposal.

Metro staff, board members and the public have criticized the traditional law enforcement effort, as the system saw increases in crimes, substance abuse and homelessness in the past few years. The study said an in-house department would give Metro more control over where to locate patrols and provide more relevant training.

In her response to Luna, Wiggins wrote: "My primary objective is to offer security services that are tailored to the unique demands of our system, our customers, and our employees, and that are more deeply attuned to Metro's culture and values."

The Sheriff's Department has patrolled Metro systems since the early 1980s. Luna defended the department's Transit Services Bureau, saying they are aware of Metro's unique needs and challenges. "There are deputies and professional staff with decades of experience at Metro. Department personnel see themselves as part of the Metro family," he wrote.

Traits of an in-house department

Scrutiny of an in-house police division is also coming from the PSAC, a committee of 15 voting members that favors alternative security measures. The group successfully pushed for the creation of the Metro's Transit Ambassadors program, an unarmed group of greeters who are the eyes and ears of the agency working with law enforcement.

On Nov. 13, the PSAC voted unanimously to create three ad-hoc committees to present recommendations to Wiggins regarding hiring qualifications and enforcement powers for an in-house police department. A third ad-hoc committee would discuss creating a citizen oversight committee to examine abuse claims.

These three committees would be made up of PSAC members who have expertise in law enforcement, racial justice, social services, homelessness, mental health and public safety in general. The group in previous meetings has expressed concerns over LA Metro's safety record and held a listening session allowing riders to vent about being assaulted on trains and buses and not seeing enough law enforcement officers.

The special committees would meet in December and possibly in January, looking at research into how other transit agencies effectively employ their own in-house police departments.

"I and the rest of our team at PSAC want to seize the opportunity to weigh in, and be part of the development of an in-house safety department," said Jeremy Oliver-Ronceros, PSAC chair. That would include incorporating what riders told them in past meetings and their own perspective on safety and law enforcement.

The PSAC voted to create three distinct ad-hoc committees, each with separate tasks.

A personnel committee would suggest hiring criteria, such as being bilingual. A job duties committee would suggest officer responsibilities, such as whether they should enforce fare evaders and others who violate the Metro Code of Conduct, which includes smoking on board, taking up two seats or playing loud music.

Finally, one of the most controversial proposals, is a committee to establish oversight of the department. It may suggest setting up a citizens oversight committee that would look at abuse complaints and potentially include a list of consequences for officer violations.

"It is a real moment to shift things in the right direction. I have no question the community knows what's best. My concerns come from the implementation," said Janet Asante, media coordinator for the Justice LA coalition.

Asante's group, which has been critical of LAPD, LASD and the county Probation Department, is skeptical of an in-house Metro police department, saying it could resemble the old system and noting, "We find that what is called one thing just can be recreating this harmful system."


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